Oh World, Leave Me Slowly – The New Poetry Collection from American Poet Francesca Bell

A launch annoucement for American poet Francesca Bell’s latest poetry collection, What Small Sound, being held today at Auntie’s Bookstore, Spokane, Wa.

Manifest Image

The man keeps telling me I am beautiful.
I still look young.

He says it like I’ve asked for it,
but I don’t care.

For him or beauty.

I am content to slip into old,
wrinkled plainness,

to walk on unimpeded.

I was young once.
My body stunned.
My breasts were really something,

but I was something else entirely.

Something no one one could see
until now.

Francesca Bell from What Small Sound, Red Hen Press, 2023

The poem above comes from Francesca Bell’s latest book, only her second collection, but her poems have been making waves in recent years appearing in many journals, notably Rattle, where she has been featured in the Poets Respond series and where she won the Neil Postman Prize for metaphor.

Like wildfire smoke, loss hangs over the poems of  of What Small Sound  (loss of innocence, of bodily and mental health, to name a few) but like smoke, sometimes these losses can retreat leaving the landscape still there, fully revealed, still holding on. Other times, especially in her poems of sexual violence, it stays. But in her epigraph poem of this blog post, the last poem in her collection, she ends with the smoke gone. The triumph of this. The triumph in the quick colloquial pace of these lines:

I was young once.
My body stunned.
My breasts were really something,

but I was something else entirely.

Something no one one could see
until now.

This confidence, this  wisdom of Francesca’s in a culture where female beauty is held up like some idol to be worshipped. So often a false idol that betrays the beholder and the one beheld. And in this poem her characteristic quick biting wit, this delightful ouch:

He says it like I’ve asked for it,
but I don’t care.

For him or beauty.

This collection like her first, Bright Stain, which I reviewed in a post here in 2019, holds a magnifying glass to the ugliness in the world but will not succumb to despair. In this I think of something Jane Hirschfield said to Kaveh Akbar in the American Poetry Review in the March/April 2020 issue about a poem she wrote in response to a dark and despairing poem of hers. In the response poem she remembers that mourning must not overwhelm gratitude for what is being lost; that grief must not obscure praise; that it is, quite simply, rude not to love this moment’s very existence.

And, literally, in Francesca’s second poem of the collection, Learning to Love the World That Is,  the grief, the loss: the smoke, has left the poem: It’s good to walk this first smokeless morning/in weeks. Though fires burn not so far away, winds are favorable at the moment, to me. Francesca will not give us easily won moments of respite but she will give us them, well earned. I love this startling reminder: winds are favorable at the moment, to me.

As the speaker continues on in a smokeless day she lists the losses from the deadly fires but then imagines a flock of geese rising from a stinking slough and instead of cursing a God  who etches suffering/ onto a world that scorches, the speaker boldly asserts:

I’m like a person who resists at first
the temptation of a kiss but then leans fully in,
my heart rising on the voice of the geese,
their cry a hinge that sings as it does
the necessary work of opening.

This courage to stay open, in spite of. This poem’s title, Learning to Love the World That Is could be the sub-title for the book. A book that opens with a poem, Jubilations, that ends: Thank You for this world of green grass and suffering. A book with poems where the speaker confronts her hearing loss, especially, the poem What Small Sound which provides the book’s title. A collection of poems where the speaker in a poem about rape writes men/ do things/ I regretted, the understated horror of that line.

This learning to love the world that is in a book with a two-column poem, each column listing items in a rape kit: one column for the rapist, one for the victim. A book with poems about a daughter fighting mental illness and suicidal ideation: in the days of her death wish, my eyes were fixed, open; a book with poems that unflinchingly will look at pain and suffering in the face but somehow the speaker manages to stay present and alive in spite of, in spite of.

Her staying open, staying present no matter what strikes out in her poem Lightning Comes Closer All the Time. It begins with what I consider one of the most enjoyable first lines I have encountered in a poem in years and ends just as powerfully:

I can’t tell from here
if the Lord is a sniper
or a drunk guy with a shotgun.

Then this ending:

Sometimes I want to take my fist
to the face of God or duck my head
but I keep still here out in the open,

humanity hung on me like a metal suit,
dread dripping off me like rain.

After lines like these I just want to stop and quiet down into the truth of how what the spreaker says slams into my body and its bones.

In spite of poems in this collection that carry so much dread especially the dread of rape as in her poem Just Like All the Girls there is a tenderness that underlies so many of the poems. A tenderness toward her speakers and their subjects as in this poem with its strikingly effective title:

Instrument Left in its Case.

My life sucks, but my wife won’t,
he said, rolling onto his back
on my massage table.

He laughed, a painful choke,
as his penis slowly rose,
quiet question tenting
the flannel sheet.

I think he wanted –
not to be blown,
but played,

trapped song
coaxed from him
by careful embouchure
and another’s breath.

I heard the faint thrum
of his loneliness
all the way home.

Instead of judgement something deeper. Something more understanding and tender. The generosity of this poem made even more compelling in a collection where men can be portrayed as such harmful and menacing figures.

I was surprised while writing this post when I picked up Louise Glück’s seven-part poem, October, and read lines that had such an echo from Francesca’s collection. From part III of October

Winter was over. In the thawed dirt,
bits of green were showing.

Come to me, said the world. I was standing
in my wool coat at a kind of bright portal-
I can finally say
long ago; it gives me considerable pleasure. Beauty

the healer, the teacher-

death cannot harm me

more than you have harmed me,
my beloved life.

Louise Glück from October, Quarternote Chapbook Series #3, Sarabande Press, 2004

I hear in Louise’s words Francesca’s line,  Thank You for this world of green grass and suffering. And I hear, something Francesca’s is having a harder time doing these days, in her poem After the Hearing Test, the same profound courage and acceptance as in Louise’s poem. After saying what she won’t miss hearing she comes to what she will miss:

but  I’d like to keep

Telemann’s Trumpet Concerto in D;

the tiny chuff my python makes
up close to my ear:

the calls of the two Canada geese
as they circled the slough this morning,

seeming lost, their cries trailing them,
like a woman’s heavy train;

and the indicipherable murmur
of my beloved’s voice

as she held my hand while the bear
ate my baked beans just outside our tent.

Though I could not make out her assurances,
may they  burble over me forever.

Loss accrues, the geese can tell you.
It compounds. Like interest.

Oh, world, leave me slowly.
let me dally over each diminshing return.

This courage to stay open in a world with so many closings, so many losses: such diminishments. To stay open to eros, wonder and beauty. This is Francesca’s gift to the world and to us.


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